I have danced all my life. I started ballet when I was an eight-year-old skinny child who never seemed interested in food. But when puberty hit, I developed a ferocious appetite, which made my mother elated, and my ballet teacher, who weighed us every first of the month, horrified: I put on 3 kilos all at once!
So I started weighing myself before and after every meal—or, as my mother teasingly put it, before and after every feed, like mothers used to do with babies, and I declined dinner preferring a meager yogurt instead. Fortunately, I got bored with this regimen, and I liked eating too much to develop an eating disorder as my mother feared. Aside from that one time, I never seriously dieted, mostly because I didn’t need to, but I have struggled with body acceptance since. What boys thought about my body started becoming important soon after, and I routinely found a body part to obsess about: my nose (too big!), my calves (also too big!), my breasts (not big enough!).
My recent favorite: wrinkly knees. I am seriously considering injecting something in them. (I would have to do some research on this!)
My partner has now taken my mother’s place in teasing me. Now, this is interesting because both bear at least some responsibility for my insecurities over my body. My mother, like—I suspect—many other mothers, may have been reassuring about weight, but not about my appearance in general: she rarely praised my looks and often made disparaging comments about them. She also has been on a diet since I can remember. More precisely, she has been “starting a diet” since I can remember. She is the reason why, as a mother myself, I really want to change the way I think and talk about my body. I don’t want my daughter to inherit this self-loathing obsession with looks that is passed down to so many of us, for generations.
I have to acknowledge that my partner has been a lot better than my mother in many respects. As a feminist, he is very aware of the importance of fighting back against stereotypes of femininity. As a lover, he has made me feel beautiful and sexy. However, he has his own preferences about the female body. In fact, his preferences happen to be fairly conventional (although maybe conventional for a man 20 years his senior): he likes curviness. He finds cellulite cute, and muscles unattractive. On the one hand, this is good news: unlike some women I know, I don’t have to deal with men who complain about me getting too fat. On the other, I have to deal with a man who excitedly compliments parts of my body that I do not want to hear praised as “jiggly” and who seems to find never-ending amusement in poking and squeezing stuff that an entire industry has been created to eliminate—or at least photoshop away.
Finally, add to this picture my pregnancy, during which I juggled the worry to stay fit and gain just the minimum amount of weight with the worry of not worrying too much about it, and accept with serenity the unavoidable decline. After I gave birth, I juggled the admiration for feminist, supposedly empowering projects like the 4th Trimester Bodies Project with the shame of feeling relief for not looking much like the women portrayed.
I know that my current concerns with being fit and thin have a functional nature: I can be a better dancer if I am back to my pre-pregnancy weight and shape. But now that I am close to that target, I know that it’s not just that: my not-as-toned-as-before belly does not prevent me from dancing well, but it does make me extremely, and irrationally, sad.
So… the jury is out.
As a mother, I want to be relaxed about my body, and transmit to my daughter the idea that it really shouldn’t matter what she looks like, and that she should instead aim for a healthy, functional body (I am hesitant to say “strong” because of possible ableist biases that shape the normative ideal of physical strength: I think being functional can be declined in ways that involve fewer such biases.)
As a romantic partner, I want to please my significant other, but without sacrificing my preferences. As a feminist, I do not want to succumb to objectifying and disempowering aesthetic ideals. (Don’t get me started on padded bras and waxing practices.)
As a woman, I want to be pretty, even with the understanding that my aesthetic standards are the product of my history and the era I live in.
I hope by the time I am old enough to have a granddaughter I will have figured it all out. In the mean time, I’ll enjoy my chocolate tonight, and my ballet class tomorrow.
Sara Protasi is a PhD student in Philosophy at Yale. She is currently working on her dissertation, tentatively titled “Envy: Varieties, Evils, Remedies, and Paradoxes”, which is at the intersection of moral psychology, normative ethics, and ancient and modern philosophy. Her other teaching interests include feminism and bioethics. Dance is her main hobby and passion outside of philosophy. She is an alumna of Yale Dance Theater and A Different Drum Dance Company at Yale.
Photo credit: Duc Nguyen